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Montessori's Response to Inequality

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In 1907, the Italian owners of tenement buildings in the San Lorenzo slums of Rome had a brilliant idea. They had been concerned about the damage young children were doing to their apartment complexes while their parents were away at work.  (In those days,  childcare for those under six was not mandated by law.)  So, they came up with a plan: create a classroom inside a building so that the children would be kept too busy to destroy staircases and walls.  They found a young female physician, Dr. Maria Montessori, who had no experience in running a school,  but she was willing to work with these tiny "hooligans."  Not only did the destruction eventually stop, but what happened next astonished the world.

Over the next two years, Montessori's Casa de Bambini revolutionized early childhood education, so much so that many of her discoveries are still on the cutting edge today.  What is often forgotten about her early work is this first group of young children, who came from the lowest economic strata of Italian society.  How was it that these impoverished "vandals" became so influential in the history of education?  

Recently, Dr. Angeline Lillard published the results from a three-year study on the effects of Montessori education on preschool children.  According to an article published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "...the Montessori preschools significantly helped low-income children to perform as well as wealthier children academically. Statistically, after 3 years in the preschool programs, low-income Montessori children performed as well as high-income children in both Montessori preschools and conventional preschools."

In other words, the children from San Lorenzo showed that Montessori's method was the great "equalizer" in education.  It did not matter how or where the children had been raised; what mattered most was how they spent their days in the classroom.  And Dr. Lillard's new study shows that the transformational benefits of Montessori education are just as real and relevant today as they were 110 years ago in San Lorenzo.  "We found that children in Montessori schools did better overall than children in conventional schools," says Lillard. "The greater gains in academic achievement for Montessori children were accompanied by greater gains in social understanding, stronger persistence on challenging tasks, and more enjoyment of academic tasks."

As our present day civilization wrestles with ways to boost opportunities for children from all walks of life, it would be well if policymakers reminded themselves of San Lorenzo and advocated for time tested methods of reaching every child, no matter their background.  

(A special thank you to Joe Witte, former MPA parent, for sending me the original article on the Lillard study.)

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